Last night I was a panelist on a zoom presentation sponsored by the Author’s Guild, moderated by Jane Friedman. The other panelists included an editor from Little, Brown, a literary agent, a publisher for a major independent press, and the director of a CMLP, a nonprofit for smaller presses. (You can find their names—I’m not trying to hide, just generalize!—here).
When Jane asked us all about agents, the others all said getting an agent was the most preferable way to publish. Neither Grove, Atlantic nor Little, Brown consider unagented submissions. Mary Gannon of CMLP thought it best to try to get an agent first and then, if that fails, try publishers that accept unagented submissions. I was the outlier. “We pretty much never work with agents!” was my contribution, and then I tried not to feel like the loser in the group, publishing only the unwashed books already rejected by scores of others.
But I really believe our main strength as a press comes from the way we acquire books, and we have never accepted a proposal from an agent.
I started thinking about how we have acquired some books in the past:
Vivian Gibson had never written before she took a writing workshop in retirement. She wrote some short pieces and submitted them for our St. Louis Anthology. The editor of that anthology, Ryan Schuessler, sent me her submission, because it was so strong, and suggested I talk to her about a book. I gave her a call.
Vivian would never have written the kind of proposal that is expected by editors at presses that only take agented submissions. It’s an excruciating genre, the non-fiction proposal, and she was just playing around with writing for the first time. Instead of asking for a proposal, we gave her a contract and a deadline; she wrote, we talked during the process, we edited, we edited some more, and then we published The Last Children of Mill Creek. It was reviewed in the TLS, the LARB, and every St. Louis publication; it is now assigned in classes in St. Louis schools, sold at the Gateway Arch, has sold over 3,000 copies, and has been a bestseller at St. Louis’ Left Bank books for going on 18 months now. I don’t want to sound sanctimonious or self-righteous here, but —- it’s a good thing we accept unagented submissions, right?
Phil Christman, whose second book we are publishing in February, was a successful critic whose writing I loved, and one day a few years ago I sent him an email asking if he had any book ideas, and would he be interested in writing one for us. He admitted he found the proposal process difficult. I said, don’t worry. We talked, and developed an idea, and I gave him a contract. The result was Midwest Futures, which went on to win two awards, was reviewed in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Commonweal, which named it a notable book of 2020.
I could go on, because every book we have published has some story like this. None of our authors, that I know of, tried to get an agent before they approached us. They all either came to us directly, or we reached out to them. A few of them were savvy-enough about this world to know they could get agents—I am thinking right now of John Warner and Craig Calcaterra, two experienced writers who have the contacts and know-how to navigate that process. But they either had had bad experiences with agents and the Big Five process in the past, or knew enough to know they preferred the quicker, more intimate process from idea to publication Belt offers. And, luckily for us, a big advance was not a high priority for them.
I will admit that a few times, last night, I felt small not just in press but person. Why don’t more agents flood me with proposals? But then I remembered that many of the agented proposals we do receive don’t really fit our mission, and the many authors we would never have worked with if we only looked at what agents were sending.
And let’s be clear: we have published many books by Black authors, and women, and people who are not from privileged backgrounds, and writers who are simply not enmeshed in any writer community or group or MFA program, and people writing about a part of the country often uninteresting to New York publishing,—and those are also the writers least likely to try or succeed at the agenting process. We offer an alternative—we offer access— not a fallback plan.
Now: I have nothing against agents! I have sold a book with the help of an agent myself. I recently counseled a good friend, whose book I wanted to publish, to get an agent instead, because I thought he actually could get a six figure advance, and he needed that up front money, plus he was curious as to whether he could get it (it worked! But it’s not so fun for him now, after the contract has been signed and that big first check delivered, in ways that are familiar to me; my experience with my agented book was not positive).
An agent is one way to navigate traditional publishing. It’s not the only one, or necessarily the best, and getting one is a prohibitive process for many writers whose voices we want—and need—to hear.
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